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Russia seeks Eurasian hegemony, with Germany’s help

A 100-year-old theory may explain Putin's strategic thinking

April 27, 2014 3:15AM ET

The White House response to the advance of the pro-Russian faction in Ukraine is to ignore Russian President Vladimir Putin, to pressure the Kremlin’s economic strengths and to treat the Russian Federation as a pariah state.

Not only is this policy unoriginal — a soft reprise of the Cold War’s containment doctrine — but it also ignores the hard-won lessons of geopolitical history, especially those of the last 100 years.

Strategists in both Moscow and Berlin, I am told, study the celebrated English geographer Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), whose Heartland theory has been part of the debate in Europe since before World War I. 

In a 1904 address at the Royal Geographical Society titled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” later expanded into his 1919 magnum opus, “Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction,” Mackinder proposed the sweeping Heartland theory, which pictures the world as made up of the “World-Island” of Eurasia and attached Africa, surrounded by “satellite islands” of the Americas and Australia. 

Mackinder argued that whoever controls the World-Island, also called the Heartland, controls the world.

An early critical component of this theory was the view that Russia is what Mackinder calls the Pivot. Russia forms a geographic bridge from Europe to Asia across an uninterrupted expanse of steppe and forest; this bridge changed history when the Asian horsemen, Mongol and then Turkic, crashed into Europe. In 1904, Mackinder openly admired the Russian potential for dominating both its neighbors and even the sea powers England and France. Mackinder also saw, presciently, well before the catastrophes of the two world wars and the Cold War, that the balance of power in the World-Island invariably favors the Pivot state of Russia.

Mackinder added a stern warning to Edwardian Whitehall: If Russia expanded over the “marginal lands” of Eurasia, “the empire of the world would be in sight.”

It is chilling to read Mackinder’s next sentence: “This [empire of the world] might happen if Germany were to ally herself with Russia.”

High-level European conversations claim that Putin joins with Chancellor Angela Merkel and their counselors in reading the history of the last century, especially Mackinder, whose work has been a guide for world capitals, including Washington, as recently as the Cold War. Putin and Merkel have renamed Mackinder’s genius into the Common Eurasian Home doctrine.

Putin and Merkel confer often, not only about Ukraine but also about their plan to develop a stable, prosperous, secure Eurasian supercontinent.

Eastern Europe

The Ukrainian showdown is a small piece in Moscow’s and Berlin’s huge plans for the 21st century. “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland,” Mackinder wrote in 1919, “who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island controls the world.” Moscow and Berlin understand that they are constructing a dominating alliance that treats the U.S. as a peripheral force.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier indicated that Germany wants to seek normalization with Russia over Ukraine, not just talk of sanctions.

Ukraine begins to define the Kremlin’s aim to recover the Eastern European buffer states that it lost in the failure of the Soviet empire. The sole issue for Ukraine, I am told, is whether the state will be a federation, with eastern Ukraine attached to Moscow, or if it will be broken up, with eastern Ukraine calling itself Novorossiya. The pro-Russian forces in what they have declared the People’s Republic of Donetsk call themselves federalists, not separatists. Their aim is to stay part of a Ukraine that is not bossed by the forces behind Kyiv’s Maidan uprising. The Kremlin is not in a hurry, allowing the media propaganda in Europe, especially in Germany, to paint the Maidan forces as untrustworthy. The Kremlin presents the pro-Russian forces as faithful, churchgoing citizens who are threatened by the gun-toting Kyiv “fascists.”

After Ukraine, the Kremlin aims to go forward gradually and articulately. For example, Putin and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of Turkey recently conferred about the Muslim and Turkic Crimean Tatars. Putin told Erdogan that Russia is working to make restitution for what was lost in the Stalinist terror. Putin and Erdogan also discussed energy pipelines through Turkey, which may be needed if there is any disruption in Ukrainian pipelines. Turkey very much desires Russian trade. Putin communicated that the Kremlin appreciates Turkish cooperation in three troubled areas: Syria, Cyprus and Ukraine. The exchange is characterized as Putin’s making Erdogan a most friendly offer that he could not refuse.

World-Island and periphery

The increasing hostility between Washington and Moscow is seen in Moscow as evidence that Barack Obama’s administration refuses to acknowledge the supreme geographical advantage that Russia and its ally Germany enjoy over the World-Island. 

The Kremlin believes that the White House has made it easy for Russian ambitions by turning the Ukrainian crisis into a contest between NATO and Moscow. The Obama administration has put all its eggs in one basket despite the fact that the other 27 nations in NATO have other priorities.

There is fresh indication from Berlin that the Germans are ready to turn away from the confrontation. Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier indicated that Germany wants to seek normalization with Russia over Ukraine, not just talk of sanctions. Steinmeier’s remark followed European Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger’s assessment that cutting off or even cutting back energy from Russia as a means of pressuring Moscow was not a priority. In sum, the Europeans as a whole recognize, as do the Germans, that Russia is in command of the future of the continent.

The Kremlin believes the Obama administration makes each new foreign policy dispute into a personal dispute, as in Obama versus Putin. This formula treats leaders who agree with Obama as moderates and leaders who disagree as enemies. In the Kremlin’s view of the century, Putin is neither a friend nor an enemy of the U.S. He and his allies are pursuing Russia’s destiny at long last, after more than a hundred years of war, pestilence, famine and death. America’s destiny, according to the Mackinder theory, can be that of a rich, potent, benevolent satellite to the world-dominating Common Eurasian Home.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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